Shields, Carol (Vol. 193)
Carol Shields 1935-2003
(Born Carol Ann Warner) Canadian-American novelist, short story writer, poet, playwright, biographer, and critic.
The following entry presents an overview of Shields's career through 2003. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volumes 91, 113.
Canadian-American writer Shields is best known for her highly celebrated novel The Stone Diaries (1993), for which she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and Canada's Governor General's Award. Shields, whose novels have achieved best-seller status, has been recognized for her experimental use of narrative form in fictions that examine the everyday lives of average men and women with honesty and compassion. Her recurring thematic concerns include personal identity and self-perception, as well as love, marriage, and family. Shields has stated in interviews that a central preoccupation running through her works is “the idea of women being fully human.” In an interview with Reuters, she commented, “I love the idea of home, and I think that is, in the end, what serious novels are about: the search for home.”
Shields was born Carol Ann Warner on June 2, 1935, in Oak Park, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago. The daughter of a schoolteacher and a candy factory manager, she has described her childhood as an essentially stable and happy one. She attended Hanover College in Indiana, graduating with a B.A. in 1957. During a semester studying at Exeter University in England, she met Donald Shields, a Canadian graduate student whom she married upon completion of her college degree. The couple lived in Canada, and Shields worked as a homemaker, raising their five children while her husband pursued an academic career in engineering. During this time, Shields wrote several journalistic stories, which were sold to the Canadian Broadcasting Company (CBC) and the British Broadcasting Company (BBC). At the age of 33, she enrolled in the graduate program in English at the University of Ottawa, where she completed a thesis on the nineteenth-century Canadian writer Susanna Moodie, earning a master's degree in 1975. Shields's first book of poems, Others, was published in 1972. Small Ceremonies, her first novel, was published in 1976. Shields taught as a professor of English at the University of Manitoba from 1980 until 2000, and served as Chancellor of Winnipeg University from 1996 until 2000. Upon retirement, she moved with her husband to Victoria, in the British Columbia province of Canada. Shields died of cancer on July 16, 2003, at the age of sixty-eight.
Shields's career as a fiction writer developed in two distinct phases. Her early novels and short stories were conventional in form, exploring themes of individual identity and interpersonal relationships. Small Ceremonies, The Box Garden (1977), Happenstance (1980), and A Fairly Conventional Woman (1982) all belong to this first phase. Small Ceremonies concerns a married couple living in Canada during the 1970s. Both husband and wife are academics, and the wife's research for a biography reflects the interpersonal dynamics within the family. Happenstance and A Fairly Conventional Woman are companion novels, relating the events of a single weekend, first from the point of view of the husband and then from that of the wife. While these early novels were well received by critics and popular with readers in Canada, Shields was not well known outside of Canada. In the second phase of her career, however, she developed a wider international readership. Mary Swann: A Mystery (1987; published as Mary Swann, 1990) and her subsequent novels maintain her early thematic concern with the everyday lives of everyday people, but are distinguished by bold experiments in narrative voice and form for which Shields has been widely celebrated. Mary Swann concerns the life and work of the fictional Mary Swann, a farmer's wife who lived in rural Ontario and published a single volume of poetry before she was murdered by her husband. Mary Swann is described from the perspective of four different narrators, for each of whom Swann's life and work takes on a different set of meanings. A final section of the novel brings together the voices of all four narrators in the form of a screenplay. Mary Swann was adapted to film as a major motion picture released in 1996. A Celibate Season (1991), co-written with Blanche Howard, is an epistolary novel, comprising the letters between a husband and wife over the course of one year during which they live one thousand miles apart, in Ottawa and Vancouver. Shields and Howard built their fictional narrative through a process in which Shields wrote the letters attributed to the husband and Howard wrote those of the wife. The Stone Diaries, Shields's most highly celebrated work, is a biography of the fictional Daisy Goodwill Flett, beginning with her birth in 1905, and following the course of her life over a period of eight decades. In the person of Daisy, Shields portrays the life of an ordinary woman, including marriages, deaths, children, and a brief stint as the writer of a newspaper gardening column. Through the use of both first-person and third-person narrative voices, Shields explores the tensions between Daisy's inner life and her outer life. Larry's Party (1997) centers on the protagonist's forty-seventh birthday party, revealing the story of his life through an examination of his interrelationships with friends and family. Like most of Shields's main characters, Larry is a rather ordinary man—except for the fact that he makes his living designing and building complex mazes out of shrubbery. The motif of the maze functions as a symbol for the complexity of both Larry's relationships with others and the structure of the narrative itself. Critics have noted that, while Daisy in The Stone Diaries represents a sort of Everywoman, Larry represents the Everyman. Diagnosed with cancer in 1998, Shields wrote Unless (2002) with the awareness that it was to be her last novel. Unless, set in the year 2000, is narrated as the interior monologue of Reta Winters, a forty-three-year-old novelist, happily married, with three teenaged children. Reta experiences unhappiness for the first time in her life when her nineteen-year-old daughter Nora suddenly drops out of university and takes to sleeping in homeless shelters and begging on the streets of Toronto with a sign around her neck that reads “Goodness.” In struggling to cope with this family crisis, Reta comes to the conclusion that her daughter has internalized the realization that women continue to be marginalized in modern society. Reta thus embarks on an intellectual journey of feminist consciousness-raising in an attempt to come to terms with her daughter's seemingly inexplicable behavior.
Shields has been widely praised for elegant prose and skillful use of detailed description in depicting the everyday objects and quotidian actions of men and women leading outwardly unremarkable lives. Gail Godwin observed that Unless, like The Stone Diaries and Larry's Party, “presents itself, almost insistently, as a story about ordinary lives. But then, through her sensitive observations and exacting prose, the author proceeds to flip them over and show us their uncommon depths.” Shields has been called a “miniaturist” because of her close attention to the details of everyday lives; however, Shields herself has stated that critics who refer to her as a miniaturist are marginalizing her work by relegating it to the realm of domestic women's fiction. Critics have noted that Shields's best novels effectively capture the essence of an individual life with all of its elusive ambiguities. As Clare Colvin commented, Shields's novels “suggest that the pattern of people's lives is in the detail, which they are inclined to disregard as being not sufficiently important to count as living.” The Stone Diaries, for example, has been praised as a work that portrays the entire lifespan of an ordinary woman in a way that demonstrates the extraordinary qualities of even the most mundane lives. Critics have been especially impressed with Shields's experimental use of narrative structure and shifting point of view in her later novels. Her experiments with non-chronological narrative structure have been highly praised, in works such as Larry's Party, in which she utilizes an elliptical narrative structure that frequently doubles back on itself, while telling the story of one man's life from birth through middle age. Lynne Sharon Schwartz praised Shields's use of the maze in Larry's Party as a metaphor “for a life shaped, like most lives, by wrong turns and arbitrary choices, the frivolity of coincidence, the benighted promptings of will and destiny.” Reviewers praised Shields's explorations of the elusive nature of biography in works such as Mary Swann, in which different narrators attempt to reconstruct the life of a fictional dead poet, based only on incomplete and fragmentary information. Critics offered high praise for Shields's last novel, Unless, asserting that it is her most powerfully feminist work and explores the marginalization of women in a bold and honest way.
Others (poetry) 1972
Intersect (poetry) 1974
Small Ceremonies (novel) 1976
Susanna Moodie: Voice and Vision (criticism) 1976
The Box Garden (novel) 1977
Happenstance (novel) 1980
A Fairly Conventional Woman (novel) 1982
Various Miracles (short stories) 1985
*Mary Swann: A Mystery (novel) 1987; published in the United Kingdom as Mary Swann, 1990
The Orange Fish (short stories) 1989
A Celibate Season [with Blanche Howard] (novel) 1991
The Republic of Love (novel) 1992
Coming to Canada (poetry) 1992
Happenstance [includes Happenstance and A Fairly Conventional Woman] (novels) 1993
The Stone Diaries (novel) 1993
Thirteen Hands (play) 1993
Larry's Party (novel) 1997
Anniversary [with David Williamson] (play) 1998
Scribner's Best of the Fiction Workshops 1998 [editor] (short stories) 1998
Dressing Up for the Carnival (short stories) 2000
Jane Austen (biography) 2001
Dropped Threads: What We Aren't Told [co-editor,...
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SOURCE: Grimond, Kate. “Putting the Hum in Humdrum.” Spectator 284, no. 8949 (12 February 2000): 33.
[In the following review of Dressing Up for the Carnival, Grimond asserts that Shields is at her best when describing details of everyday life, holding that the stories are varied, enjoyable, and contain elegant prose.]
A concert harp falling from an upstairs window knocks a young woman to the ground in the snow. It chips a fragment off a bone in her leg, and the unhappiness in her life is exposed. An elderly couple living placidly in the country are put under great strain when meteorologists go on strike and there is, as a consequence, no distinguishable weather of any sort. Another couple, both artists, block up all the windows of their house in order to avoid paying a window tax. Their relationship begins to fall apart and it is not until they paint a window on the inside of the blocked openings that a rapprochement comes about. These are brief outlines of stories in this new collection by Carol Shields [Dressing Up for the Carnival].
Shields likes to glance at people's lives and relationships by way of objects (keys, for instance, in one story) or by the displacement or removal of something crucial (the windows, or, in another story, mirrors). A significant alteration of circumstances, whether fantastical or humdrum, allows her to reveal the pain or the dreams or...
(The entire section is 851 words.)
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SOURCE: Walters, Margaret. “The Beckoning World.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 5056 (25 February 2000): 21.
[In the following review, Walters praises Dressing Up for the Carnival as a fine collection of lively stories, and lauds Shields's use of vivid detail.]
The title story of Carol Shields's fine new collection, Dressing Up for the Carnival, is set in a small town, as people prepare for an evening's festivities. A girl chooses clothes, then out in the sunshine feels transformed: “no longer just Tamara, clerk-receptionist for the Youth Employment Bureau, but a woman in a yellow skirt. A passionate woman dressed in yellow. A Passionate, Vibrant Woman About To Begin Her Day. Her Life.” Roger, thirty and divorced, breaks from routine to buy a mango, and suddenly feels that “the shrivelled fate he sometimes sees for himself can be postponed if only he puts his mind to it”. An older man who sometimes “waltzes about in his wife's lace-trimmed nightgown” gazes from his window; it seems as if “the evening itself is about to alter its dimensions, becoming more (and also less) than what it really is”.
Shields's eye for the sensuously vivid detail, for the telling moment when a whole life seems transformed, enlivens story after story. Her characters are often overwhelmed by moments of physical delight. In “A Scarf”, a woman searches for a gift for her...
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SOURCE: Scurr, Ruth. “Not Quotidian.” New Statesman 13, no. 594 (28 February 2000): 58-9.
[In the following review of Dressing Up for the Carnival, Scurr comments on the thematic links within each story, maintaining that Shields is a powerful storyteller who uses an experimental narrative style and playful inventiveness in her stories.]
“Absence,” a story in Carol Shields's new collection [Dressing Up for the Carnival], echoes Georges Perec's La Disparition in both name and conceit. Famously, Perec set out to write a novel without using the letter “e” and succeeded. Shields matches him, discreetly, with a story about a writer and a broken keyboard from which the letter “i” has disappeared: “She would be resourceful, look for other ways, and make an artefact out of absence. She would, to put the matter bluntly, make do.” Making do, cheerful canny compromise, reappears in “Invention.” Initially inspired by uxorial devotion, the unexpected commercial success of the steering-wheel muff results in marital breakdown. The special strain of creativity on domestic relations is picked up in another story. “New Music.” Here a woman is up early, typing away at a secondhand word processor while her family sleeps on. The work in progress is her biography of the composer Thomas Tallis, undeservedly overlooked for so long. There is a similar attempt to redress critical...
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SOURCE: Frucht, Abby. “Between Rhapsody and Lamentation.” Washington Post (21 May 2000): 6.
[In the following review, Frucht asserts that Dressing Up for the Carnival is an important and highly entertaining work.]
Dressing Up for the Carnival is Pulitzer Prize-winner Carol Shields's third collection of stories and 12th work of fiction, and anyone who imagines that all this time the remarkable author of Larry's Party and The Stone Diaries has been holding back a few sparks of her peculiar genius is incorrect. It's not sparks but flames she's been tending in secret. These 22 stories emerge from a state of willful, artistic derangement in which the wry despair and vexed compassion of Shield's other works erupt in weird, extravagant light—and not simply for the fun of it but because they need to.
Behind this book lies the recognition that all the good things of this world need fresh encouragement if they are not to be overtaken by the bad things threatening to wipe them out. The world's woes are not articulated here, but the sadness to which they give rise is this book's quiet underpinning. Still, if what we see on the news invites desperation, Shields gives that desperation a mind-altering adrenaline rush. To make sense of things isn't advisable now, she might explain. Better to unhinge them and see them as they would be, instead of as they are....
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SOURCE: Schwartz, Lynne Sharon. “The Allures of Form.” New Leader 83, no. 2 (May/June 2000): 35-7.
[In the following review, Schwartz compares the stories in Dressing Up for the Carnival to Shields's novels, observing that the stories are more rooted in ideas than in character. ]
A spotlight on one book, however well-deserved, can cast the rest of a writer's work into shadow. Carol Shields, who has lived in Winnipeg for many years, is known to American readers for her 1995 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Stone Diaries. But she is the author of eight earlier novels, and is a poet and playwright as well. To read her is to encounter a restive, experimental writer, one for whom the allures of form are paramount. The final section of Swann (1987), about four critics' discovery of a great unknown poet, purports to be the script of a film made at a literary symposium (the very notion provokes levity), A Celibate Season (1991), written with Blanche Howard, is an epistolary novel. Happenstance (1994), is presented from both a wife's and husband's viewpoint, and has to be turned upside down halfway through.
Given the success of The Stone Diaries, it seems disingenuous to claim that Carol Shields—praised for her “honesty,” “grace,” “humor,” and “depth”—is underappreciated. Yet her fiction isn't discussed with the reverence...
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SOURCE: Oates, Joyce Carol. “An Endangered Species.” New York Review of Books 47, no. 11 (29 June 2000): 38-41.
[In the following review, Oates discusses Shields's Dressing Up for the Carnival along with several other recent story collections by various authors. Oates comments that Shields's stories are intelligent, provocative, and entertaining.]
The short story is a minor art form that, in the hands of a very few practitioners, becomes major art. Its effect is rarely isolated or singular, but accumulative; a distinguished story collection is one that is greater than the mere sum of its disparate parts. In isolation, striking and original as individual stories might be, it's likely that they would quickly fade from literary memory, as a few scattered poems of Emily Dickinson, separated from the poet's great body of work, would have long since faded into oblivion.
Yet one might argue that collections of short fiction have been among the major literary accomplishments of the twentieth century. Surely the astonishing stories of Franz Kafka (“The Judgment,” “The Metamorphosis,” “In the Penal Colony,” “A Country Doctor,” “A Report to an Academy,” “The Hunger Artist,” among others) are a greater accomplishment than his uncompleted novels. Thomas Mann's shorter works—“Death in Venice,” “Mario and the Magician,” “Disorder and Early Sorrow,”...
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SOURCE: Coates, Donna. “Re Marriage.” Canadian Literature, no. 164 (spring 2000): 175-76.
[In the following review of Happenstance, Coates discusses the role of employment and work in the lives of the two central characters.]
In a recent interview, Carol Shields confessed that she was “furious” when she came out of Four Weddings and a Funeral because “absolutely no one in that film had a job. People's work lives are written out of novels, too.” Shields never writes people's work lives out of her fiction, though; in Happenstance (1980) and A Fairly Conventional Woman (1982), re-issued as the two-volume set Happenstance: Two Novels in One about a Marriage in Transition (1991, 1994, 1997), work is a (pre)-occupation, one which she has continued to explore in The Stone Diaries (1993) and Larry's Party (1997). The clever packaging of Happenstance, apparently Shields' idea—the novels open from opposite sides, each upside down to the other—reflects her belief that the cultural conditioning imposed upon women and men in the 1950s which encouraged them to value work differently was detrimental to both.
At the outset of “The Husband's Story,” Jack Bowman thinks, correctly, that his life is going well: he has a solid marriage and a good job as an historian at the Great Lakes Institute in Chicago. But when his wife of...
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SOURCE: Glover, Douglas. “Amiably Elegant Shields, Raw and Passionate York.” Canadian Forum 79, no. 890 (July/August 2000): 39-41.
[In the following excerpt, Glover maintains that the stories in Dressing Up for the Carnival are elegantly written but ultimately lacking in depth.]
Carol Shields's Dressing Up for the Carnival is a gentle, jocular, pixilated (the word comes from the old James Stewart movie Harvey about the rabbit only James Stewart can see) collection of short stories, some of which aren't exactly short stories in any conventional sense but rather riffs or variations on a theme or magical inventions or even sketches.
For example, the title piece is eight pages long and moves serially through ten different unrelated characters. Shields shows us each character starting his or her day, focusing on what she or he dresses up in for the carnival of life. Dressing up here isn't quite the right phrase—one young woman carries her lunch in an old violin case; a middle-aged man prances happily around the bedroom in his wife's nightgown. The story is about the intimate and individual objects of apparel humans use to create an image, dream or fantasy. Of the middle-aged man in the nightgown Shields writes, “Everywhere he looks he observes cycles of consolation and enhancement, and now it seems as though the evening itself is about to alter its dimensions,...
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SOURCE: Glazebrook, Olivia. “A Bicycle Not Made for Two.” Spectator 285, no. 8978 (2 September 2000): 36-7.
[In the following review, Glazebrook asserts that the two central characters in A Celibate Season are unsympathetic, and comments that the novel as a whole cannot overcome the limitations of the epistolary form.]
A happily married couple are forced to live 1,000 miles apart for one year only. Can their marriage survive?
It may sound like a new fly-on-the-wall docudrama for Channel Four, but this, in fact, is the premise of A Celibate Season. Financial circumstances force Charles and Jocelyn—or ‘Chas’ and ‘Jock’, as they will have it—to separate: Jocelyn skips off to Ottawa to act as legal counsel for a commission studying ‘The Feminization of Poverty’, and Charles is left in Vancouver holding the baby—or, more accurately, the two teenagers. The pair spend nine months firing letters off to each other and the result is an epistolary novel, with Carol Shields assuming the voice of Charles, and Blanche Howard that of Jocelyn.
Initially, both husband and wife get a thrill from the role reversal. Jocelyn enjoys independence, breadwinning and being fancied by goaty old men as ‘single’ totty. Charles confines his kicks to home-making, hiring a saucy cleaner, and taking poetry classes. But Christmas, their first reunion after four...
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SOURCE: Rodd, Candice. “Middle-Class Marital.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 5085 (15 September 2000): 24.
[In the following review, Rodd asserts that A Celibate Season makes pleasurable use of the co-written epistolary form, but judges the story as complacent and lacking the depth of Shields's previous novels.]
This good-natured book [A Celibate Season], written in the early 1980s but only now available in Britain, is a curiosity on several counts. It is an epistolary novel of the old-fashioned kind that relies on stamps and postal delays rather than the quick-fire benefits of e-mail; it is a co-production by two little-known writers, one of whom has since built an international reputation; and its theme of role reversal in marriage shows how quickly social norms can shift; what writer today would take for granted the reader's sympathy for a cash-strapped house-husband whose only recourse, when faced with a grimy kitchen floor, is to advertise for a cleaning woman?
The husband in question is Chas, a forty-seven-year-old Vancouver architect happily married for twenty years to Jock (Jocelyn), a lawyer. Chas has lost his job because of the recession—the novel takes place against a background of public-sector strikes—and when Jock is offered a nine-month contract in distant Ottawa as legal counsel to a government commission investigating “the feminization of...
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SOURCE: Allardice, Lisa. “Maiden Aunt.” New Statesman 14, no. 642 (5 February 2001): 51-2.
[In the following review, Allardice asserts that Shields's Jane Austen is a sincere and balanced biography that offers enlightening readings of Austen's work.]
Ever since Colin Firth strode out of the pond at Pemberley wearing skintight jodhpurs and a transparent shirt, in the latest BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen scholarship has never been the same. The much-loved maiden aunt of old has been banished to the cobwebs, and a racier, more experienced lady novelist has emerged in her place. In this brief biography [Jane Austen], the novelist Carol Shields reiterates the case that Austen's life was not so uneventful, nor her world so small, as we had cosily imagined.
It is fitting that the novelist who famously worked in miniature should be commemorated in a series of short lives. (Sylvia Townsend Warner's sparkling 29-page life of Austen is hard to find today). Neither an academic nor critic, Shields—often compared to Austen for her elegantly plotted, deceptively domestic novels—is an inspired choice of biographer. She writes compassionately as a fellow novelist and “devoted reader” (once past some ominous trans-Atlantic throat-clearing about the Jane Austen Society of North America).
Instead of telling Austen's “story” as we...
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SOURCE: Keates, Jonathan. “Not So Plain Jane.” Spectator 286, no. 9004 (3 March 2001): 48.
[In the following review of Jane Austen, Keates praises Shields's depiction of Austen and her career, and values the focus within the biography on Austen's artistic development.]
Until recently, the popular image of Jane Austen's life was that of an untroubled idyll, led against Regency backdrops which combined English pastoral cosiness with the dash and frou-frou of Bath as portrayed for us on boxes of ‘Quality Street’ chocolates. She wasn't lucky with men of course, but then, cynics might argue, who is? Her death from an unspecified disease was premature and quite possibly agonising, yet she faced it with Christian resignation in a nice house in Winchester, where her brothers interred her in the north aisle of the cathedral, under a ledger stone which, while praising ‘the extraordinary endowments of her mind’, completely failed to mention the six novels which have guaranteed her immortality. We were encouraged to believe that she was happy, secure in the love of a close family and confident of burgeoning success as an author. With its occasional diversions, in the form of trips to London and the seaside, and the presence of nephews and nieces to whom she played the role of indulgent maiden aunt with suitable verve, it was the kind of life we could have wished her to lead. A husband, after all,...
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SOURCE: Howells, Coral Ann. “In the Subjunctive Mood: Carol Shields's Dressing Up for the Carnival.” In Yearbook of English Studies 31, pp. 144-54. Leeds, Eng.: Maney Publishing, 2001.
[In the following essay, Howells discusses two stories from the collection Dressing Up for the Carnival, asserting that Shields's writing displays “a subversive carnivalesque energy.”]
Diurnal surfaces could be observed by a fiction writer with a kind of deliberate squint, a squint that distorts but also sharpens beyond ordinary vision, bringing forward what might be called the subjunctive mode of one's self or others, a world of dreams and possibilities and parallel realities.1
Any fiction with ‘carnival’ in its title promises some kind of challenge to traditional structures of social order and possibly of literary convention, ‘dressing up’ in anticipation of celebration and festivity, where for a brief space of time dailiness is transcended, split open to allow other more chaotic energies to express themselves. These celebratory gestures may be collective and robustly corporeal as Mikhail Bakhtin has shown in his study of Rabelais,2 or they may be more individualistic and subjective in our own fragmented contemporary world, which Carol Shields calls ‘this torn, perplexing century’,3 though in either case...
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SOURCE: Cusk, Rachel. “My Heart Is Broken.” New Statesman 15, no. 704 (29 April 2002): 47-8.
[In the following review, Cusk offers high praise for Unless, calling it a remarkable novel about the realities of women's marginalized place in society.]
I have always taken a pleasure in Carol Shields's novels that was slightly indistinct. Perhaps it was her composure—the membrane of absolute competence around her prose that seemed also to be a form of reticence—which rendered the soul, the motivation of her writing, opaque. That isn't a criticism: reading Shields is like talking to a good friend, someone reassuring and wise who, out of modesty or sympathy, keeps her own heart a secret. Like Jane Austen, Shields is a mysterious presence in her own fictions, a sort of shaded figure, and it seems to me that, with this remarkable novel, her narrative has finally turned to that figure and unveiled her.
Unless is a formidable meditation on reality: it takes the vessel of fiction in its hands and hurls it to the floor. Shields's unambiguous prose is here put to the service of her intellectual daring, and the result is a book that speaks without pretension about its strange and singular subject: the relationship between women and culture, the nature of artistic endeavour, and the hostility of female truth to representations of itself. I don't think I have previously read a work...
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SOURCE: Ratcliffe, Sophie. “Typing while the World Howls.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 5170 (3 May 2002): 22.
[In the following review, Ratcliffe offers high praise for Unless, asserting that the story demonstrates Shields at her tragi-comic best.]
In a teasing gesture towards critics who have suggested that she “doesn't do sadness very well”, Carol Shields begins her latest novel [Unless] on a low note. Reta Winters has led a good life so far—three children, a career as a novelist and translator, and a happy marriage. But, as her opening sentence reveals, she is “going through a period of great unhappiness and loss just now”. Reta appears in Shields's last collection of stories, Dressing Up for the Carnival (2000), losing a scarf that she has just bought for her daughter. Now she seems to have lost the daughter too. Norah has dropped out of university and sits on a Toronto street corner “cross-legged with a begging bowl in her lap”:
Nine-tenths of what she gathers she distributes at the end of the day to other street people. She wears a cardboard sign on her chest: a single word printed in black marker—GOODNESS.
Reta still has, friends remind her, her writing—“A murmuring chorus: But you have your writing, Reta.” However, the plot of her latest comic romance gets sidelined,...
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SOURCE: Brookner, Anita. “Women Talking to Women.” Spectator 288, no. 9065 (4 May 2002): 39-40.
[In the following review, Brookner assesses Unless as a charming novel that addresses the marginalization of women in society.]
It is hard to describe what makes this resolutely old-fashioned novel [Unless] so beguiling. Even the themes are old-fashioned: feminism, sisterly solidarity, a hippy search for purity (of a non-specific kind), and yet it keeps one reading on, slightly puzzled, to an old-fashioned happy ending, or at least a comfortable one. Perhaps its charm comes from its simplicity, a quality rarely encountered either in fiction or in the real world. The curious title is taken almost at random from a group of words—thereof, theretofore, despite, since, hardly, not yet—which are used to link passages of writing that must be connected if they are to move a narrative along to another mode. They are essential words that are rarely employed in direct speech, but the narrator of this particular novel is a writer and she knows how much development they are destined to convey.
The plot too is simple. Reta Winters, a Canadian woman of 44, living in Orangetown, north of Toronto, is blessed with three daughters, a loyal partner, a large house, and a group of stoutly supportive female friends. She is a writer who has made her name by translating the memoirs of Danielle...
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SOURCE: Charles, Ron. “My Troubles Are Bigger than Your Troubles.” Christian Science Monitor 94, no. 16 (9 May 2002): 15-16.
[In the following review, Charles describes Unless as a mischievous monologue that is remarkably subtle and unsettling.]
You wouldn't expect it from her, but Carol Shields has written a naughty book. Put your yellow highlighter down: There's no sex, but the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Stone Diaries is doing something indecorous here—ribbing our notions of grief, even snickering at what inspires us.
Her latest novel, a mischievous monologue called Unless, begins with lamentations. Reta Winters once had it all: a loving partner who's a successful doctor, three smart daughters, a beautiful house outside Toronto, and a stimulating career as a translator. She had heard of sadness and pain, of course, but she confesses, “I never understood what they meant.”
Until now. “Happiness is not what I thought,” she concludes. “Happiness is the lucky pane of glass you carry in your head. It takes all your cunning just to hang on to it, and once it's smashed you have to move into a different sort of life.” Now, in this new dark world, it's clear to her that the past was filled with “impossibly childish and sunlit days before I understood the meaning of grief.”
Who needs a downer like this?...
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SOURCE: Ciabattari, Jane. “The Goodbye Girl.” Los Angeles Times (12 May 2002): 4.
[In the following review, Ciabattari judges Unless as a consummately poignant and artistic novel.]
Unless, Carol Shields' 10th novel, is a thing of beauty—lucidly written, artfully ordered, riddled with riddles and undergirded with dark layers of philosophical meditations upon the relative value of art, the realistic possibilities for women “who want only to be fully human” and the nature of goodness, that enduring human dilemma also worked thoroughly by Saul Bellow. What is goodness? How can goodness survive in the face of evil? How should a good woman—or man—live?
Shields, who was brought up in Oak Park, Ill.—Hemingway's birthplace—has spent her adult life in Canada, where she raised five children and taught literature before beginning her literary career with the novel Small Ceremonies, published when she was 40.
This makes her that rare creature, a writer eligible for American as well as British and Canadian literary prizes. She has won many, including a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Critics Circle Award for The Stone Diaries, (1994), the lyrical and profound “biography” of Daisy Stone Goodwill, an Everywoman whose life spans the tumultuous 20th century, and Britain's Orange Prize for Larry's Party, her 1997 novel about an...
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SOURCE: Hammill, Faye. “‘My Own Life Will Never Be Enough for Me’: Carol Shields as Biographer.” American Review of Canadian Studies 32, no. 1 (spring 2002): 143-48.
[In the following review of Jane Austen, Hammill comments that Shields provides a genuinely new perspective on Austen's life while highlighting the speculative nature of biography.]
My debt to Jane Austen herself is incalculable,” writes Carol Shields on the last page of her new biography [Jane Austen] of Austen (154). The biography sheds light on Shields's relationship to Austen, and it also offers a subtle exploration of the problems and pleasures of biographical research—a subject which has preoccupied Shields in much of her earlier writing. These aspects of the book will increase its appeal to admirers of Carol Shields and scholars of her work, although the intended audience is the general reader seeking an introduction to Austen's life. Jane Austen is part of the Weidenfeld and Nicholson Lives series, a set of short, extremely readable biographies, whose authors are themselves well-known figures. Devotees of Jane Austen will find no new information here, but they will find in some passages a genuinely new perspective on Austen's life, born of the understanding that one novelist can bring to the life of another.
In her prologue to the biography, Carol Shields describes a trip that she made with...
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SOURCE: Moss, Laura. “‘The Quotidian Is Where It's At.’” Canadian Literature 172 (spring 2002): 194-96.
[In the following review of Dressing Up for the Carnival, Moss comments that the best stories in the collection focus on love and marriage and highlight Shields's experimentation with narrative form.]
In her introductory remarks at a reading at the Harbourfront Reading Series in Toronto, Carol Shields remarked on her frustration at the critics' tendencies to focus on the “ordinary” in her works. In response to this incessant focus she read “Soup du Jour,” a story from her recent collection Dressing Up for the Carnival. The parodic story begins: “Everyone is coming out these days for the pleasures of ordinary existence. Sunsets. Dandelions. Fencing in the backyard and staying home. ‘The quotidian is where it's at,’ Herb Rhinelander recently wrote in his nationwide syndicated column. ‘People are getting their highs on the roller coaster of everydayness, dipping their daily bread in the soup of common delight and simple sensation.’” This is the playful beginning to a sad story about life, love, and obsessive counting. As in most of the other stories in this collection, Shields flouts the conventions of ordinariness but she does not relinquish them. By the end of the story we still know about all the ingredients required in the soup. This is a slow read, not...
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SOURCE: Ricci, Nino. “A Tribute to Carol Shields.” Brick, no. 69 (spring 2002): 170-73.
[In the following essay, Ricci offers a personal account of her encounters with Shields as a fellow novelist. Ricci praises Shields's experimental narrative structure and shifting points of view in The Stone Diaries.]
I first met Carol Shields in the fall of 1990. That was the year my own first novel came out, and as part of the promotional activities for the book my publisher had arranged for me to do a reading at a small bookstore in Winnipeg.
Now it just so happened—and it has since been my experience that there are many things of this sort that just so happen in that gauntlet of humiliation known as the Book Tour—that another reading had been scheduled in the city on the same evenings as my own, featuring a writer much more famous than I was. I later heard that this other writer had attracted a crowd of some three hundred or so. But back at my own little bookstore, the appointed time arrived and what had seemed at first just the lingering end-of-day remnant of uncommitted browsers turned out in fact to be my audience—a total of six, as I remember, including the store's owner and my publisher's book rep. Among the rest, however, were two people whose presence I had no right to expect: one was Sandra Birdsell and the other was Carol Shields. Coming from Toronto, I was not accustomed to...
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SOURCE: Waxman, Barbara Frey. “A New Language of Aging: ‘Deep Play’ in Carol Shields's The Stone Diaries and Alison Lurie's The Last Resort.” South Atlantic Review 67, no. 2 (spring 2002): 25-51.
[In the following essay, Waxman asserts that The Stone Diaries provides a fresh, positive, playful perspective on old age and death.]
Author May Sarton observed in 1973 that old age is a “foreign country” that Americans know little about—nor do they care to—until they must travel there themselves. Yet there is a growing clientele for this “foreign travel” and at age 54 I number myself among the travelers. I do not want to wait until age 65 or 70 to figure out how to live fully the rest of my life, what retirement means, or how to prepare philosophically for a good death. Nor do I accept many of our culture's received notions about later life: that it is a life stage of passivity, deterioration, and increasing isolation. The ageism of these stereotypes is unacceptable to aging baby-boomer feminists like me, who have been resisting oppressive “-isms” for decades. Sarton and an increasing number of other authors have been introducing readers like me to this foreign country over the past quarter-century through memoirs and novels. Their depictions of older characters help to challenge negative stereotypes of the elderly and encourage readers to consider the possibilities...
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SOURCE: Showalter, Elaine. “How to Be Good.” London Review of Books (11 July 2002): 13.
[In the following review, Showalter describes Unless as a novel that takes aesthetic and imaginative risks and debates questions of women's art and its reception.]
The debate about women's writing—is it too restricted, domestic and love-obsessed, in contrast to the more sweeping, historical, socially aware and experimental novels of men?—has been going on since Jane Austen's day. Charlotte Brontë was one who rejected Austen's plot, which she called ‘a carefully fenced, highly cultivated garden’. Recently Gillian Beer even announced the death of the traditional women's novel: instead of the masochistic themes of unrequited love, she said at the Hay Festival, ‘women have freed themselves to write more forcefully about much larger networks, wars, families, communities, national change, terrorism and history.’
Not all women novelists would agree that such transformations are a liberation, however. In her recent biography of Austen [Jane Austen], Carol Shields was also writing about her own credo as a woman novelist whose subjects have been domestic, whose endings have been happy, and whose literary ambitions have been trivialised. First, she insists, ‘Austen's short life may have been lived in relative privacy, but her novels show her to be a citizen, and certainly a...
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SOURCE: Sterns, Kate. “How Goodness Is.” Queen's Quarterly 109, no. 2 (summer 2002): 283-89.
[In the following review, Sterns asserts that a fundamental weakness of Unless is Shields's failure to adequately define or sufficiently explore her central thematic concern with the concept of goodness.]
One night, in 1981, when I was an undergraduate. I sat drinking with two friends in the bar of the Plaza Hotel in Kingston: Ontario. Unlike its ritzy counterpart in New York, this Plaza was a dive offering cheap booze and a suitably crepuscular atmosphere to the rough crowd who comprised its regular clientele, and cheap thrills to students, such as myself: tourists who came to gawk and flirt with wildness.
My two friends happened to be men: that night, they were being generous and picking up the tab. It was as simple as that. Or so I thought until a crumpled dollar bill landed on the table in front of me. A woman I had noticed earlier drinking alone—the only other female in the place—had suddenly materialized by my side. Jabbing her finger at me, she said. “You're on a downward course and you'd better do something about it!”
A dollar still bought something back then, and God only knows how she had earned it. Parting with her money was generous enough. Even more so. I think, was the fact that, in rescuing me from the degraded life she was undoubtedly...
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SOURCE: Bond, Sue. Review of Unless, by Carol Shields. Journal of Australian Studies, no. 75 (2002): 164-66.
[In the following review, Bond describes Unless as a powerful and funny novel that provides insight into the process of writing.]
… unless, with its elegiac undertones, is a term used in logic, a word breathed by the hopeful or by writers of fiction wanting to prise open the crusted world and reveal another plane of being, which is similar in its geographical particulars and peopled by those who resemble ourselves.
So thinks the main character, Reta Winters, at the end of Unless by Carol Shields. It forms a frame for this funny and very strong novel with the epigraph from George Eliot, with its ‘roar which lies on the other side of silence’, for there is an event that needs to be uncovered in order for Reta and her family to know what has disturbed her daughter so much that she has gone to live on the streets of Toronto with a sign around her neck that reads ‘Goodness’. The title and the adverbial chapter headings are characteristic of Shields' style. As in other books she has used clever and interesting devices. They are not there just for show, but form a vital part of the storytelling.
Reta is a writer and translator, with three children, Norah (nineteen),...
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SOURCE: Eagleton, Mary. “Carol Shields and Pierre Bourdieu: Reading Swann.” Critique 44, no. 3 (spring 2003): 313-28.
[In the following essay, Eagleton applies the theories of French poststructuralist Pierre Bourdieu to a discussion of Shields's Swann as a work of metafiction.]
Carol Shields's Swann provides fertile ground for an exploration of issues relating to literary production, particularly women's literary production, and matters of sexual politics and the gendering of discourse figure prominently in the text. The novel has been read as a mystery; indeed, in various editions the full title appears as Swann: A Mystery or Swann: A Literary Mystery. It unravels the strange disappearance of not only all the volumes of poetry produced by the now dead Mary Swann but also everything connected with her literary production, the single clear photograph of her, and even the lectures and notes of two critics studying her poetry, Syd Buswell and Morton Jimroy. As in Antonia Byatt's Possession or Jane Gardam's The Sidmouth Letters, the research process is itself seen as a kind of theft—almost, Shields suggests, a form of “cannibalism” (231), as if the critics who fight over Swann's life and texts consume her body and soul.1 That self-consciousness about the process of research links with the novel's metafictional dimensions. Shields's sharp...
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SOURCE: Colvin, Clare. “Carol Shields.” Independent, no. 5226 (18 July 2003): 17.
[In the following obituary, Colvin provides a brief overview of Shields's life and work.]
The success of Carol Shields' novels lies in the immaculate style of her writing and her feeling for the detail in everyday lives, together with a darker undercurrent that acknowledges how provisional is life itself.
Shields herself had to face the arbitrary nature of tragedy when she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1998, soon after winning the Orange Prize for her novel Larry's Party. After undergoing a mastectomy, she embarked on several courses of chemotherapy, knowing that this was a palliative measure to prolong her life rather than a means of recovery. While fighting the illness, she wrote a biography, Jane Austen (2001), and a final novel, Unless (2002), about a woman writer immersed in a family crisis when her beloved daughter inexplicably becomes a vagrant. The first sentence—“It happens that I am going through a period of great unhappiness and loss just now”—mirrors Shields' own reaction on learning her cancer was incurable. Unless was shortlisted both for the Man Booker Prize in 2002 and for the Orange Prize earlier this year. Shields was too ill to be present at the awards ceremonies.
Her first novel, Small Ceremonies, was published in...
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SOURCE: Levy, Claudia. “Carol Shields, Acclaimed Novelist, Dies.” Washington Post (18 July 2003): B7.
[In the following obituary, Levy provides a brief overview of Shields's life and work.]
Carol Shields, 68, whose empathetic and witty novels about the lives of ordinary people included the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Stone Diaries, died July 16 at her home in Victoria, B.C. She had breast cancer.
A native of Illinois who had lived in Canada since 1957, Mrs. Shields published her first novel at age 40. She soon became a respected author in her adopted country, but was relatively unknown in America until publication of The Stone Diaries, which won her international recognition, including the 1995 Pulitzer for fiction.
The book became a bestseller and won the National Book Critics Circle Award in the United States and the Governor General's Literary Award in Canada. It was also shortlisted for Britain's prestigious Booker Prize.
Mrs. Shields said her story of a woman named Daisy Goodwill, who progresses from miserable beginnings to fulfillment in old age as a garden columnist, was basically about “birth, life, love, work, death …” In part, it reflected Mrs. Shields's own awakening to the women's movement of the 1960s, a period in which she was raising five children and composing poetry in snatched moments.
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SOURCE: McLellan, Dennis. “Pulitzer-Winning Canadian Writer Explored the Lives of Everyday Women.” Los Angeles Times (18 July 2003): B12.
[In the following obituary, McLellan provides a brief overview of Shields's life and work.]
Carol Shields, an acclaimed Canadian writer whose novel The Stone Diaries earned her a Pulitzer Prize in 1995, has died. She was 68.
Shields, whose novels portrayed ordinary people, particularly women, in everyday situations, died Wednesday in Victoria, Canada, after a long battle with breast cancer.
Born in the United States, Shields was an English graduate of Hanover College in Indiana who moved to Canada as a 22-year-old newlywed in 1957. She raised five children, published two books of poetry and one of criticism and earned a master's degree before her first novel, Small Ceremonies, was published in 1976, when she was 40.
She became one of Canada's most respected writers, known for her stylistic inventiveness.
In all, she wrote 10 novels and three collections of short stories in addition to poetry, plays, critical studies and a biography of Jane Austen. She recently served as co-editor on the second of two volumes of Dropped Threads, an anthology of women's writing.
Shields achieved international fame—and leaped onto the bestseller lists—with the publication...
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SOURCE: Hagen, W. M. Review of Unless, by Carol Shields. World Literature Today 77, nos. 3-4 (October-December 2003): 95-6.
[In the following review, Hagen lauds Shields's “realistic focus” on her characters's lives in Unless, maintaining that Shields “is one of our best” contemporary writers.]
Somewhere in the middle of her life [in Unless], Reta Winters is on tour in Washington, D.C., to promote her first novel. Bookstore signings are over, she has an afternoon free, so she visits no less than twenty boutiques in search of the perfect scarf for Norah, her oldest daughter. It will be a birthday gift for the very daughter who, unaccountably, will drop out of college and end up begging on a street corner. Strangely, the episode marks Reta's first encounter with shopping passion. She shares the experience with an old friend, who adores the scarf and immediately appropriates the gift for herself! Reta recalls that she said nothing and rationalizes that her daughter was aware of the “big female secret of wanting and not getting.” Less than one-third of the way through a novel entitled Unless, one is advised to suspend judgment, which is difficult to do.
Both as a mother and a novelist, Reta is obsessed with the problem of her daughter: if she can't understand and help her own daughter, how can she hope to create characters who will seem authentic?...
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Coyle, Jim. “Carol Shields Had a Unique Gift for Unravelling Life's Mysteries.” Toronto Star (19 July 2003): A21.
Coyle provides a brief overview of Shields's life and work.
Dvorak, Marta. “Carol Shields and the Poetics of the Quotidian.” Journal of the Short Story in English, no. 38 (spring 2002): 57-71.
Dvorak offers a post-structuralist analysis of Shields's representations of everyday life in the stories of Dressing Up for the Carnival.
Ferguson, Sue. “Cries and Whispers.” Maclean's 116, no. 17 (28 April 2003): 50.
Ferguson praises the anthology Dropped Threads, co-edited by Shields, for fresh, imaginative prose and a broad range of perspectives.
Godwin, Gail. “For Goodness's Sake.” Washington Post (5 May 2002): 3.
Godwin describes Unless as a story that reveals the unexpected depths of ordinary lives. Godwin compares Shields's novel to the myth of Persephone and Demeter.
Heltzel, Ellen Emry. “Carol Shields again Gives Voice to Women's Concerns.” Chicago Tribune Books (12 May 2002): section 14, p. 2.
Heltzel describes Unless as an illuminating novel that explores the dark side of the feminine experience.
Johnston, Ann Dowsett....
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